Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mary Chesnut Blogged The Civil War

Mrs. Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut, 1823-1886, chronicler of the Civil War in the South, was a blogger.  

She was just about a century too soon.

And, her work encountered a few delays before it found a place on the internet, like starting out in 1905 as a book with actual paper pages and ink words.  However, her words are now available on the internet, giving her the status of blogger. 

And writer.  And author.  And literati.

And she never got paid, unless you count the astonishing satisfaction of writing because she wanted to and could.  She could not allow the vast panorama of life in her times, both large earth shaking events and small homely episodes, to go unrecorded.

No electronic keyboard, spell check, or formatting tools, she did it old school. The glow on her face as she wrote was undoubtedly from a candle flame. And the flame in her heart lit the rest of the way.

She’d crack open a blank page of “confederate paper” leather bound in a quarto sized notebook, dip her quill, and almost daily, pending illness or danger, scratch out in cursive an account of her very social life in wartime South Carolina.

Mary Chesnut’s diaries, all 45 volumes of them, sometimes spent time deep in a hole buried with the family silver to avoid confiscation by Yankee soldiers come to reap the spoils of war.

Of keeping her journal, she wrote:

"Why do you write in your diary at all," someone said to me, "if, as you say, you have to contradict every day what you wrote yesterday?" "Because I tell the tale as it is told to me. I write current rumor. I do not vouch for anything."

That sounds like we 21st century bloggers explaining ourselves.

Hers was not an academic or legalistic depiction of the politics or social conventions of the day. She wrote with a “delightful unconscious frankness” * similar to the raw and unselfconscious tone found in many modern day blogs. She wrote in her own voice, unpretentious and honest.

Of Manassas she wrote:

August 8th. - To-day I saw a sword captured at Manassas. The man who brought the sword, in the early part of the fray, was taken prisoner by the Yankees. They stripped him, possessed themselves of his sleeve-buttons, and were in the act of depriving him of his boots when the rout began and the play was reversed; proceedings then took the opposite tack.

Of Abraham Lincoln she wrote:

In the hotel parlor we had a scene. Mrs. Scott was describing Lincoln, who is of the cleverest Yankee type. She said: "Awfully ugly, even grotesque in appearance, the kind who are always at the corner stores, sitting on boxes, whittling sticks, and telling stories as funny as they are vulgar." Here I interposed:

"But Stephen A. Douglas said one day to Mr. Chesnut, 'Lincoln is the hardest fellow to handle I have ever encountered yet.' " Mr. Scott is from California, and said Lincoln is "an utter American specimen, coarse, rouge, and strong; a good-natured, kind creature; as pleasant-tempered as he is clever, and if this country can be joked and laughed out of its rights he is the kind-hearted fellow to do it. Now if there is a war and it pinches the Yankee pocket instead of filling it - "

Of her elderly husband and the African man who stayed, she wrote:

African Scipio walks at Colonel Chesnut's side. He is six feet two, a black Hercules, and as gentle as a dove in all his dealings with the blind old master, who boldly strides forward, striking with his stick to feel where he is going. The Yankees left Scipio unmolested. He told them he was absolutely essential to his old master, and they said, "If you want to stay so bad, he must have been good to you always." Scip says he was silent, for it "made them mad if you praised your master."

Of Southern gentility, she wrote:

Sometimes this old man will stop himself, just as he is going off in a fury, because they try to prevent his attempting some feat impossible in his condition of lost faculties. He will ask gently, "I hope that I never say or do anything unseemly! Sometimes I think I am subject to mental aberrations." At every footfall he calls out, "Who goes there?" If a lady's name is given he uncovers and stands, with hat off, until she passes. He still has the old-world art of bowing low and gracefully.

Of witnessing an auction, she wrote:

I have seen a negro woman sold on the block at auction. She overtopped the crowd. I was walking and felt faint, seasick. The creature looked so like my good little Nancy, a bright mulatto with a pleasant face. She was magnificently gotten up in silks and satins. She seemed delighted with it all, sometimes ogling the bidders, sometimes looking quiet, coy, and modest, but her mouth never relaxed from its expanded grin of excitement. I dare say the poor thing knew who would buy her. I sat down on a stool in a shop and disciplined my wild thoughts... You know how women sell themselves and are sold in marriage from queens downward, eh? You know what the Bible says about slavery and marriage; poor women! poor slaves! 

Of changing households in hard times and her relationships with her servants, she wrote:

Wednesday. - I have been mobbed by my own house servants. Some of them are at the plantation, some hired out at the Camden hotel, some are at Mulberry. They agreed to come in a body and beg me to stay at home to keep my own house once more, "as I ought not to have them scattered and distributed every which way." ...I asked my cook if she lacked anything on the plantation at the Hermitage. "Lack anything?" she said, "I lack everything. What are corn-meal, bacon, milk, and molasses? Would that be all you wanted? Ain't I been living and eating exactly as you does all these years? When I cook for you, didn't I have some of all? Dere, now!" Then she doubled herself up laughing. They all shouted, "Missis, we is crazy for you to stay home."

Her voice sounds so familar.  We hear her speaking as though she is sitting in the same room. She wrote what she knew and she did so to be heard.

Having had no children, she bequeathed her beloved words to close friend Isabella D. Martin to be published.  And they were.

Entitled A Diary from Dixie as written by Mary Boykin Chesnut the parts of her journals that weren't too personal were published post-humously in 1905.

Her journals became testament to a time of brutal homicidal war, the privations of a proud citizenry, and perhaps the only real truth about slavery and its nature in the South.  Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote fiction and had no first hand experience on the issue.   Mary Chesnut did.

And her journals became literature.

Perhaps our humble blogs, however flawed and quaint, will someday leave such a legacy.

*Isabella D. Martin, Introduction, A Diary from Dixie


If Mary's voice speaks to you as it does to me, don't miss the series:

The Civil War
A Ken Burns documentary for PBS. 

Mary's words glue the whole film together with elegance, wit  and eye-witness truth.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Theme Park 9/11: We Wrote the Questions

“Hey…Did you see this?” 
Michael came running into my office and flicked on the television.
  “Looks like there’s been an accident at the World Trade Center.”
We were just starting our day researching and writing the questions for a Studio theme park game show, based on the popular television phenomenon Who Wants To Be A Millionaire
We usually kept the TVs on in our offices to monitor breaking news on any subject from entertainment to politics,  history to science.  We worked seven days a week bathed in the glow of our computers and television screens delivering creatively entertaining queries for Studio theme park guests to answer for some pretty swell prizes. 
The questions we created had to be very high quality and absolutely accurate in every way.  And our little team of twelve researchers and writers rocked them out every day, brand new, shiny, fresh and fun, for the attraction on both coasts.
We were nerds in paradise and we knew it. 
And we became very close friends in the process.
“Looks like a plane flew into it, doesn’t it?” said Michael. 
And, indeed, the smoldering breech in the long grey side of the building did look like a cartoon impression of a plane’s wings and body with smoke pouring out of it. 
He was shifting from one foot to the other nervously. “My dad has offices there but I think he’s travelling now.”
Mike’s dad was in the business of eggs.  Among the many things of which Michael had innate knowledge, all of our questions regarding Judaism went through him. He was a wonderfully kinetic and funny New York Jew.
Then Shiraz bolted in to join us watching the television, buoyant and ready to start work.  Always in a good mood, and full of vinegar, Shiraz was a great smiling kid who loved food and computer games. 
“What’s going on?” 
“Looks like a plane crashed into the Trade Center, Shiraz.” 
An American Muslim, Shiraz was educated at Rutgers and his father was the Chairman of the North New Jersey Muslim Association.   He had friends who worked in the Trade Center.  He was betrothed to his intended wife in Pakistan.
“Looks like a small plane,” I said, “Why would anything larger be flying that low?”
Michael said, “It may not be an accident.”
And Shiraz said, “Let’s hope it’s just an accident…”
The news helicopters and camera feeds from every surrounding building adjacent to the World Trade Center were being broadcast on all channels as we flipped from CNN to ABC to CBS. 
Some anchor woman was talking by phone with someone near the impact point.  The man was speaking to her with otherworldly calm while the space around him melted like a Dali painting.
Images of both tall towers filled the television screens and we watched and rocked back and forth on our feet and groaned with every new observation of fire and smoke and the small dots, the tiny dust motes imbued with gravity, the men in business suits with their ties spiraling upward and the women in high heels, their hair streaming  just falling, falling…
The cameras didn’t know when to look away.
“Oh! OH! God.  There goes another one!”  I barked.
“No, NO you couldn’t have.”  Heather had joined us silently.  A native of North New Jersey, engaged to be married, the tears were springing to her eyes.  She could see the Towers from where she grew up.
“I did. It was so fast.   Just a dot speeding by, shot from a low angle from the street…LOOK!” 
The morning show anchor reporters we were watching on television, incredulous, doubted each other’s eyes just as we were until the control room could rack the playback, and yes, there was another. 
Another plane.
Blasting into the second tower in a stream of fire and a rain of paper.  A grey ticker-tape sprinkling of papers, all white and on wing like flattened doves riding the thermals down.
The four of us became instantly kinetic, turning away, turning back to see, holding each other, crying, hushing.   
And then the Pentagon. 
And then a field in Pennsylvania.
Landmarks in the United States.
A dawning realization bleached the color from our faces as all of our phones began ringing and our pagers went off in a concert of beeps and bells.
First response in a theme park is rapid, efficient and strikingly calm.  By noon, with the concerted effort of pre-trained first responders leading us in strict evacuation protocols, all the parks were clear of guests. 
Other than one hurricane, this was the first time the entire theme park complex was shut down. 
When we were done assisting with the exodus, I instructed Michael, Heather and Shiraz and the others to go home, and stay home until notified. 
Shiraz was to come to my home if he encountered any difficulty.  His face drawn with a kaleidoscope of emotions, Shiraz blessed us all with a prayer and assured me he would be just fine.  He was going to mosque.
We held each other in a collective hug, the moment distinct in its context.   A microcosm of people, just four of us:   Jew, Muslim, Gay, Christian, Male, Female, Young, Old wondering what was next.
Alone in our offices, turning off our televised windows to that morning’s horror, I sent the day’s quiz show questions electronically to the stages at both theme parks, one in Florida and one in California.
The show must go on.
 I walked out of our bungalow into the screaming silence of an achingly vivid blue sky day and drove home.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Cradle Catholic's Priests

Father Mike

“Ack! Linda. Good to see you dear.”

“Ok, Mike, what in holy hell is going on?”

I had waited until last. All the blue-haired ladies had lined up in front of Mike’s station self-consciously patting their hair and arranging their rosaries just right. They all had crushes on Mike, a bespectacled, gouty man with a Boston accent, because, I suspect, he delivered to all those dirty-souled little biddies that squeaky clean feeling that forgiveness brings.

I tried to control my decibels and failed. The whole church heard me anyway when I entered the confessional to exercise my sacramental privilege of Catholic penance. All the little old ladies hissed and sighed at the sound of my voice.

Skipping the prerequisite formalities, I plowed right in. Loudly.

It was the first time I was back in the jump-seat for maybe 30 years. God knew my peccadilloes already because I had installed direct trunk line to heaven’s mailroom without the intercession of a priest.

I cop to my own sins directly.

And, I am innately suspicious, no actually conditioned to be paranoid, of voluntarily coughing up my failings to a black-frocked human being. It gives him what he needs: Power over my life. And in the olden days, I am sure that it did. That was then. This is now, however.

Mike is a different kind of priest though. And I needed answers.

“It’s like any family, Lin, and families have rotten apples. Just think about that. I am sure your family has black sheep who make everybody miserable with what they do. So do we. Pedophile priests are rotten apples and they must be cleaned out of the barrel. And they will be. Now let’s go have a beer at the Claddagh.”

That’s what I loved about Mike. He took one look at my face and knew what was on my mind. And over Harp beers we talked and talked…

He knew I was lapsing. No, my faith was losing me, and he still loved me.

Monsignor O’Looney

“Come stand here next to me young lady. Let’s just see what we have here.”

We knew that Monsignor O’Looney was coming to class for “Report Card Day” because the nuns became all tiddly and excited dusting off shelves and spitting on their hands to smooth down cowlicks amongst the “young gentlemen.” The monsignor was their celebrity crush all-Catholic style.

We kids stood as he imperiously entered the room in full black cassocked Monsignor regalia. O’Looney would thoroughly embody his authority by sitting king-like in the front of the classroom, removing his bi-nodal Monsignor hat with the red pom-pom on top, and by going through up to twenty-five reports cards. Out loud. In front of everyone.

His Irish brogue was a buzzing drone as he called each of us up to stand by him in the front of the classroom while our grades were read off for the whole class to hear, including conduct. I made sure I had visited the bathroom before each of these events because I didn’t want any puddles forming under my knocking knees.

“Linda, Linda, Linda. Do ye t’ink you’ve been mindin’ Sister here properly?”

“Yes, Monsignor. I do t’ink I have.” Shining a big smart ass grin out to my friends, they stared at me with fear in their eyes.

“Well, according to this, you’ve been a bit of a problem child. A “D” in conduct is nothing’ t’be smilin’ about! You’re going to stop that infernal whispering and fidgeting now, aren’t you? I want to see improvement in your behavior young lady. Your grades include a C here in Math as well. You’ll be bringin’ that up too before next time…”

And I always heard the “or else” lingering in the background like so much incense smoke. And never a mention of the A’s and B’s I earned.

Somehow I don’t think this kind of thing would fly in schools now.

O’Looney was on the scene long before I was receiving his rough attention for my report cards. In fact, I was just an egg in my mom’s ovary.

When my parents were engaged, it was this very man who would not allow them to marry in the church unless my Lutheran mother signed a document promising not to raise the children in any other faith except the Catholic faith.

“Luther was a heretic, y’know?” he snarled at her during the interview.

Father Pete

“What should I do now?”

“Pete, just put your hands in that incubator and bless my daughter. Please.”

Pete had peeled rubber to make it to the hospital the day my daughter was born. He was the new/ old priest at our parish and all the others were attending to weddings and funerals the day I called for help. Still not unpacked, he just got on his rental car horse and rode like the wind…

My daughter was born a little early but her heart and her lungs weren’t working on their own. We had to flick the soles of her feet and hope she would take a deep gasp and to coax her heart to beat and her lungs to expand.

When Pete arrived, she was lying on her stomach naked but for a tiny diaper and a pink visor attached to her eyes with velcro to protect them from the glaring bilirubin lights. She looked like a midget pink Power Ranger with bruised feet.

Pete’s hands were what I remember best. They were chubby and his gentle holy fingers sported a tuft of white hair on each knuckle. When he put his hands in through the incubator ports and placed them gently on Tori’s little body, the blessing just poured out of him like honey.

Tori wiggled and smiled.

Naturally, Pete became close friends with us in the English tradition of priests home visiting parishioners. His was always a knock on the door at dusk when he was winding up his neighborhood walk that day and wanted to undo all the good he had done with his exercise regime. After a scratchy kiss on the cheek, Pete would always make his signature demand.

“Where’s my ham sandwich and my gin and tonic?”

For the first time in my cradle Catholic life, we had a priest, a real live priest friend with spiritual benefits, at every one of our family events.

As is the practice in the Catholic Church, no priest really remains long enough in parish to put down roots, it gets too emotional, and Pete was transferred to Georgia after a while. We made plans to visit him next time we headed north.

At Mass one Sunday, the new priest in a matter-of-fact tone, announced that Pete had died. It was a punch in the stomach. I gasped so loud the church went silent and all heads turned to me. I felt my knees buckle in grief. I had to leave.

Father Manning

“Have you said your morning prayers?”

“My whole day is a prayer Father.”

“But have you said your morning prayers? No? You know you’re driving the nails into His hands yourself! Kneel down here now and say them!”

“But Father…”

“The bus will wait!”

Every morning Fr. Manning would stalk the bus stop interrogating us about our prayer life or obscure Baltimore Catechism questions. It was an art form to avoid him by arriving at just the right second to board the bus before he could sneak up and pin us down.

He scared us mostly with his graphic passion for the more violent aspects of crucifixion and martyrdom.  He always told the stories of the saints who were made so by becoming lion food or for enduring the untimely ripping out of one or more body parts while still consciously professing the faith...

When I went on to high school, I didn’t see much more of him. I assumed his senility had advanced and he was being kept under a tighter rein much to the relief, I am sure, of the grade schoolers who had been tormented by him at the bus stop.

After I achieved a successful run as the lead in the school play, Father F-, a young progressive priest fresh from seminary, proposed that I do a new thing during the Mass at church.

He invited me to be the first girl ever to present the scripture readings at a full-on Mass. This was even before girls were thought of to be altar servers. This was going to break down some barriers…And I was thrilled.

For the first time in my life as a Catholic, I thought , “I can do this!”

It makes the whole Mass thing something in which I can really participate rather than passively sitting- standing-kneeling. No more hokey-pokey rigamarole through every dreary service…This was getting interesting.

So young Fr. F- and I rehearsed and rehearsed and studied and delved deeply into the theological interpretations of each piece until I felt like I knew exactly what I was sharing with the congregation perfectly.

And my father was so proud. Bonus!

The Sunday of my groundbreaking came and Fr. F- and my father proudly escorted me up to the church entrance. Suddenly, a figure in black blocked out the sun and my way in. Looking up, the butterflies in my stomach turned to vampire bats.

Father Manning.

He was in full black cassock and hat, literally shaking in anger with a look of pure disgust on his face. Looking closely, he had not remembered his dentures that morning so his face was all sharpness and angles. He spit a little when he spoke.

“This girl will not enter this church until we get something straight. She will not be allowed at the pulpit if I have anything to do with it.”

Fr. F- tried to intercede. “Alright Michael, it's ok.  Maybe she can do the readings in front of it.”

“Absolutely NOT!” His voice was booming. “She is PROHIBITED from even approaching the sacristy by church law! It would be an abomination.”

My father, now so conflicted between his pride in me and the authority of the priest confronting us, blurted the central question, “Why?”

“Don’t you know? What kind of Catholic are you? She is female. She bleeds.”


I was moved to write about these priests, both good and bad, so that I might discover some way of reconciling my profound sadness and, yes deep anger, with the Roman Catholic Church. I feel mortally wounded on a spiritual level by the Vatican’s recent misogynistic rulings. Although as a cradle Catholic with obvious past healed-over flesh wounds from which I have recovered, I cannot reconcile the obvious categorization by the Church of women as potential egregious violating wounds on the body of the faith any more.

To borrow from Someone who would’ve found all this so very wrong:  It is finished.

“Here's what the Vatican's internal prosecutor, Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, said from the news conference in Rome, when asked to explain why ordination of women was included alongside of rulings concerning sexual exploitation of children and the disabled by male… priests: ‘Sexual abuse and pornography are more grave dealings, they are an egregious violation of moral law. Attempted ordination of women is grave, but on another level; it is a wound that is an attempt against the Catholic faith on the sacramental orders.’

In a report from the AP, reporter Nicole Winfield explained that "The rules...list the attempted ordination of a woman as a ‘grave crime' to be handled according to the same set of procedures as sex abuse -- despite arguments that grouping the two in the same document would imply equating them.... Scicluna defended the inclusion of both sex abuse and ordination of women in the same document as a way of codifying two of the most serious canonical crimes against sacraments and morals that the congregation deals with. “

-From Psychology Today by Regina Barreca, Ph.D

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Make a Pie with the Pippin that Dinged You

The apple tree in question was a remnant refugee of an old orchard that had been slowly eaten up by the development of the tennis courts at the Country Club.
Once an energetic engine of a profuse amount of fruit, it had been reduced to the status of landscaping and shade-maker overhanging the parking lot.

The maintenance men abused this tree by neglect, neither trimming nor fertilizing it, probably because it dropped a serious amount of fruit on the pavement every summer that would need to be cleaned up.

They wanted it dead.

And the tennis players often complained that the tree was lobbing its destructive little orbs at their Beemers and Hummers making unsightly dents.

Shades of Dorothy in the Oz orchard.  And I think in some part, it may have been true.  This particular apple tree had a way of exerting its presence.

The apple tree, my apple tree, makes what would be the butt uglies of the apple world.  Small, worm chomped heirloom pippins with blackspot were the usual specimens.


But if you looked closely, underneath their seemingly inedible appearance, there lurked an appetizingly tight apple skin, the kind that snaps a little when you bite down.  And that skin was colored gloriously in a dappling of red with small tracers of yellow and white.  Or they were solid red with a sprinkle of yellow and green spots.

Biting down on these apples was to baptize yourself in the squirt of juice that would spring out and smack you in the square in the face.  The cream colored flesh in each was streaked with red; delicately veined from skin to core.

And they were sour enough to make not just your mouth pucker.

My brothers and I had spent that summer playing tennis there between odd jobs and campouts. The apple tree provided snacks for us that quenched our thirst and gave us a little sour rush that I swear enhanced our tennis.

One day some kids, some spoiled rotten resort kids, were under the tree picking up apples, taking one bite out of each and then commencing to pelting each other with the half-eaten fruit.

When they finished destroying the apples on the ground they started to climb the tree, breaking down branches and kicking off bark carelessly to reach for the ones I had my eye on for eating.
My hackles went up and I tore off the tennis court and started walloping those little brats with my racket.  They answered my wallops with some pretty well aimed shots with apples until I chased them off.

I had to pick pulp out of my tennis racket strings and out of my hair.  Those brats dinged me in the head more than once.  Kind of think one of them was a pitcher on a baseball team...

Anyway, it got into my adolescent head that day that I was in charge of that tree, even if it did produce some of the most imperfect fruit ever seen, and it was my duty to keep that kind of thing from happening again.

Which meant picking the apples.

All of them.

Before anyone else could be as wasteful and disrespectful as those kids.

I picked every last ripe apple off that tree and brought them home.

After one meal of fried apples, cornbread and sausage, we hardly made a dent in the inventory of sorry-ass ugly little bullet apples.  I needed to get cooking on a way to use the rest of my crop.

Pie was the answer.  I liked pie.

That's when 'ol Euell came into the picture.

Flipping through his book to find out how not to poison myself with wild mushrooms, I ran across his deceptively simple but amazingly tasty and flaky pie crust recipe, and it was on.

I made one pie as a starter and served a slice to my dad, who had dubbed himself the penultimate expert on pie .   It passed the sniff test with a raised eyebrow, and with eyes closed he lifted the fork to his mouth.  In the time it takes for his tastebuds to fire, his eyes opened wide and he blessed my efforts with a demand for more. 

I made pies morning, noon and night for about a month.  I smelled like an apple and sported an array of cuts on my fingers from peeling the little nuggets. 
Mom, my biggest cheerleader got her gal friends to actually buy them and not just out of fealty to their friendships.
The pies were GOOD!

Dinner parties were being planned around my pies.  I was being accosted all over that enclave for my recipe, what's my secret, how did I come up with the Perfect Apple Pie? 

It actually got a little weird.

When the apples were all baked up and gone, I went to the tree at dusk one evening, my favorite time of day, and just sat with her. 

"We done good," I told her.

And she dropped an apple on my head in answer.

Stack of Bibles.

    The Tree Her Own Self

Linda's Butt Ugly Apple Pie featuring Euell Gibbons Oil Crust Pie Pastry


  • Two cups of flour
  • Half a cup of vegetable oil
  • Quarter cup of milk
Filling -
  • About 4 cups of Granny Smith apples (Or sourest you can find!)
  • Half cup or so of sugar
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • Butter
  • Wash, core and peel apples and slice them into inch thick pieces
  • Place in a bowl and add sugar and spices, stir
  • The apples will make juice
  •  Combine all crust ingredients and mix together with a fork
  • Divide into two equal balls
  • Dampen countertop
  • Take one pie-sized sheet of waxed paper and lay it down, it will  adhere to the moist countertop
  • Put a ball of dough in the middle
  • Take another equal sized sheet of waxed paper and place on top
  • Roll out the crust btween the two sheets.
  • Peel top sheet off
  • Place pie tin face down on crust and flip it to line the pie tin
  • Fill pie with apple mixture
  • Dot the mixture with butter
  • Roll out second dough ball same way for pie lid
  • Cut out lattice or whatever cool shapes you want and top the pie
  • Pinch around the edges to seal
  • Some like to brush egg wash to make it golden on top
  • I like a sprinkling of sugar on top
  • Make sure to have steam holes in the top
  • Bake 350 degrees, 30 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly!

Photos:  I took them except for -
Pie photo thanks to Travels with Gertie who uses the oil crust recipe too.